The other day I walked past the East Village dance club and concert space Webster Hall and noticed it was celebrating its 15th anniversary. When I first stepped foot in the place, back in 1993, it must have been open less than a year. A rube from desert highlands in the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains, I wouldn’t have known any better. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
In its century-plus-long history, the landmark theater has been (working backwards) the legendary rock club The Ritz, an RCA recording studio, and a radical theater space where, according to the official website, “It was not unknown to witness Emma Goldman, the outspoken exponent of Anarchist philosophy on one night herald the cause of free love and birth control, and on the next, see the refined atmosphere and grace of a society function celebrating the nuptials of two of its elite.” Since moving to New York I’ve been to half a dozen shows there — seen friends play there more than once. Hung around the VIP balcony enough to know the sound is better down in the pit, with the roughs, rather than the boxes or the gallery, to borrow nineteenth-century theater vocabulary.
The first time I went there, in 1993, I was on a visit to New York with Corwin, one of my best friends, about a year before he died.
Corwin had only been to the city once before. When he found out he didn’t have long to live he made a list of things to do, and New York was high on it. Stephanie bought me the ticket while I was at work one day, and a couple weeks later we showed up at my friend Farrell’s Columbia-subsidized apartment, on 106th or so, near St. John’s. We made all the basic sight-seeing stops, racked up credit card bills he never intended to pay, ate fresh bagels in the morning and Ethiopian food at night — all exotic fare to small-town Westerners in our early twenties. Corwin bought some weed in Washington Square one day and smoked joints on Farrell’s roof to ease his pain (on his doctor’s advice); all the walking around had him pissing blood.
One night Farrell said he wanted to take us dancing, so we hopped on a train and headed down to the Village. I had been to the city two or three times before, but never with the absolute freedom we had on this trip. I’d never been to a club quite like Webster Hall, to be sure. For years I was convinced Farrell had slipped a bouncer money so we could get in without waiting in line. Turns out he simply told the guy Corwin was sick. Here’s what I wrote about that night in my diary:
About 11:00 we decide to go to a club called Webster Hall in the village. Drag queens dominate the stage on the main floor, platform shoes or heels and ratted, high hair. One in white makeup has her face surrounded by foil. She wears a tight body suit, black fishnet. Male nipples contrast the facial getup and his crotch bulges slightly where his penis is pulled back between his legs. Someone on stilts dances in the balcony. … After a few songs, a painted acrobat takes to a trapeze overhead and performs for about twenty minutes. Her show combines skill with sexual bravado (she spreads her legs for howlers on the balcony). She hangs by her feet while the crowd chants and applauds below. Every few minutes she loses a sequin.
… We make it back to Farrell’s around 2:30. NY is treating us fine.
Before Corwin died I wrote an essay about him being sick, the sort of thing I did at that point in my life whenever things seemed out of control. Every couple years I would tweak it around and think about sending it someplace. The last time I read it was in 1999, when he had been dead for five years. I found it on an old floppy disc not too long ago. (It was in WordPerfect — did I mention I lived in the intermountain West when I wrote it? — and I had to download a converter to open it.) It reads very much like I was in my early twenties, which I was: the sort of heavily crafted sentences and quirky details that all of my undergraduate friends tried so hard to write. A few sentences I was still proud of, like my description of my first conversations with Corwin. We were nineteen, I think, and new roommates. We’d stay up late talking about love and eating Domino’s delivery: “He’d tell me about the one who’s in Hawaii now, seven or eight years older than he is, how she chewed on his nipples the summer he was seventeen. I’d listen, ham and onions hanging from my mouth.”
I thought again about sending it out, revising it, perhaps, but in a lot of ways the version of myself I see there — the 23-year old kid reeling from the city and a friend’s sickness, the metaphysical preoccupations — is just as dead as Corwin. The final lines, though, still feel like living. They were based on a poem I had written during an even earlier trip East, a poem about the view of New York from Exchange Place, Jersey City, a view Corwin and I took a PATH train over to revisit one evening at sunset. Maybe I used those lines because they were about loss, too: the loss of a postcard view of what looked to me — nineteen years old, and again at twenty-three — like the perfect place to live:
At Exchange Place we walked the wooden boardwalk, watched Manhattan come alive with lights, the Twin Towers rising over the river, the sky grey with building rain. Brown-skinned children gathered crab traps and old men with poles lit cigarettes and talked about Puerto Rico. Soon the rain came in large, hard drops. Someone shut off a boom box, lovers leaving the edge of the water, heading for higher ground. We stood with our backs to the Colgate clock, named buildings we knew. No one talked for a while. One of us peed into the Hudson. White birds rushed, startled by the wind. Lady Liberty stood a little to the south, waving her magic wand.
Does that count as a New York story?
Bryan Waterman is Associate Professor of English and American Literature at New York University.
Department of English
New York University
13 University Place, Room 538
New York, NY 10003-4556
FAX: (212) 995-4019
TWITTER: @_waterman or @pwhny
PREVIOUS ACADEMIC APPOINTMENTS
Assistant Professor, Department of English, New York University, 2001-2007
Lecturer on History and Literature, Harvard University, 2000-2001